DOWNTOWN, TROUBLE COMES IN PINTS

ELIZABETH BENJAMIN Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: D1

Date: Sunday, February 18, 2001

When he became mayor in 1994, Jerry Jennings looked at his downtown and found it lifeless. After dark, sidewalks were empty. Shops were shuttered.


Seven years later, he has worked to usher in a burgeoning nightlife in downtown Albany centered on North Pearl Street, which the mayor envisions as a several-block entertainment corridor. Most notably, two three-floor mega-bars -- Jillian's and the Big House Brewing Company -- bring in the crowds with music and entertainment.


The big bars are packed many nights, and their success has spawned more food and drink business in the city's hub: the Victory Cafe on Sheridan Avenue and McGeary's Restaurant on Clinton Square both expanded to accommodate the growing crowds; the Bayou Cafe, a Cajun-themed restaurant and bar, recently opened in the former Yorkstone Pub on North Pearl Street.


The downtown Albany that Jennings sees now is beginning to bustle, and few dispute that the change is welcome. But others warn that the downtown scene, centered on bars, comes with a price.


Police took 48 reports at 59 N. Pearl St. between the time Jillian's opened there in March 1999 and February 2000, according to the most recent available Albany Police Department records. During the same period, there were 36 police reports taken at the Big House, which opened in July 1996 at 90 N. Pearl St.


Few of the incidents at either location were serious. Police were most often called to quell fights or to record stolen wallets, purses, cellular phones and credit cards.


Some incidents were strange. Two armed robberies occurred within three months at Jillian's last year, draining the bar of $42,000. Others were tragic. After drinking heavily at Jillian's on Nov. 5, 22-year-old Keith Gregory of Albany crashed his sport utility vehicle in Center Square, killing a longtime friend. Last month Gregory pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular manslaughter after admitting he had been drunk and speeding.


Albany Public Safety Commissioner John C. Nielsen said it's not unusual for bars of all sizes to generate police reports. But while he said the volume of incidents at Jillian's and the Big House is typical for such sizable bars, he acknowledged that they remain a concern.


``It's not unique to Albany and certainly not to either of these two bars,'' Nielsen said. ``The fact is, you get larger crowds of people, who, under the right circumstances, are more volatile. You bring in a lot of young kids who are pumped up anyway ... and you sell them drinks for a while, and you shouldn't be surprised when you get friction.''


Albany County Sheriff James Campbell said he suspects having so many bars in one place affects the number of drunken-driving incidents.


The number of fatal, alcohol-related car crashes in the county has increased over the past several years, as have the number of DWI and DWAI arrests, he said.


``It's very difficult to analyze, but there's a lot of drinking going on at these larger bars ... and it may be causing some problems from a DWI standpoint,'' said Campbell. He noted that there were just two fatal accidents in which alcohol was a contributing factor in 1995 and six in 2000. Meanwhile, the number of DWI and DWAI arrests rose from 1,218 in 1997 to 1,336 in 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available.


Without a doubt, the bars contribute to the city in positive ways: In 2001, they employed more than 250 people downtown and paid a combined $12,000 in property taxes. Jillian's sponsors public events like First Night and the Live at Five summer concert series, and donates to local charities. The Big House works with its neighbor, the First Church in Albany, to provide meals and presents to people in need during the holidays.


Officials at Jillian's and the Big House pointed out that the number of police reports at their establishments is low, considering how many patrons come there every year.


Daniel M. Smith, president of Jillian's Entertainment Holdings Inc., said 750,000 people visited the Albany Jillian's between March 1999 and February 2000, which breaks down to average about one police report per 15,000 people. About 600,000 come to the Big House every year, according to Eric Shilling, operations manager of Sheridan Hollow Inc., the corporation that owns the Big House and a smaller Wolf Road location, the Big House Grill.


``This can happen when some people get together,'' Smith said. ``A shoving match between a couple of people is not something we accept, not something that we want. We tell police about it so it doesn't happen again.''


``When you have a situation with a lot of people in one area, inevitably there is one or two bad apples,'' Shilling added. ``Inevitably, there will be incidents. Our job is to defuse any situation that may arise and help people enjoy themselves safely.''


Smith said Jillian's is serious about keeping its patrons safe. The bar has its own security staff, and also has spent $30,000 over the past year to hire uniformed, off-duty Albany police officers to patrol outside 59 N. Pearl St. on weekend nights and during special events. The Big House has 10 to 15 security staffers, and trains employees to make customer safety a priority, Shilling said.


Jillian's Entertainment Holdings spends $2 million annually on training for the staff at roughly 40 establishments in 20 states, at which topics include serving alcohol responsibly and security.


To be sure, club managers everywhere expect some rowdy behavior and the bar bustle and the conflicts it comes with are not unique to Albany.


Over the past year, Colonie police filed three complaints with the state Liquor Authority about the Extreme Bar and Grill, a large establishment at 1673 Central Ave. The bar repeatedly crammed in more than its limit of 410 patrons, served people who were obviously intoxicated and was the site of several fights -- all violations of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Law -- according to Colonie Police Chief John Grebert.


The bar backed up onto a residential neighborhood where homeowners complained of noise, vandalism and too many cars parked on their streets, Grebert said. Between Jan. 1, 2000 and Jan. 1, 2001, there were 176 police incidents associated with Extremes, the chief said.


Last year, the Liquor Authority suspended Extreme's license to serve alcohol for 10 days and fined the bar's owners $3,000. The owners did not pay the fine, so their license was canceled as of Jan. 17, according to authority attorney Thomas McKeon.


There have been no such major problems nor similar response from law enforcement involving clubs in Albany.


``The bottom line is that there will be an increased number of incidents in these types of crowded environments, especially when alcohol is involved,'' said Albany Development and Planning Commissioner George Leveille. ``But when you think about the number of incidents over time, and the number of people who are enjoying themselves in these places, the risk is very manageable.''


Beyond the crime that comes with the bar scene, some critics see the city's nightlife as a poor substitute for real vitality -- and fear the historic downtown will eventually become a destination, not a community.


``Except for maybe a play here or a concert there, (downtown) doesn't have the diversity of evening activity that a center city should offer,'' said Paul Bray, Albany heritage advocate and founder of the Albany Roundtable, a civic forum. ``There's no bookstore, no late-night cafe. On most nights, there's just bars and a couple of restaurants. Why would you go downtown if you don't drink?''


The longterm plan for the neighborhood around the bars, which is an economic development zone, includes diversity that may shift its emphasis.


Jennings said bars are only the beginning pieces of his long-standing plan to create an ``entertainment district'' on North Pearl Street anchored by the Pepsi Arena and the Palace Theater, for which a multimillion-dollar renovation is planned. The city also has begun investigating whether there is a demand for housing downtown and how best to fill that void.


The number of police incidents will decrease in downtown Albany as the area continues to develop and becomes more diverse, Shilling predicted.


``There is an opportunity for residents and retail shops to join in and bring further diversity past bars and restaurants and clubs,'' Shilling said. ``Once bars aren't the focus, it will further perpetuate an issue-free atmosphere downtown.''


The mayor credited the North Pearl Street bars, particularly Jillian's and the Big House, for bringing people downtown and said whatever negative effects they have had are greatly offset by their success in making Albany more vibrant after 5 p.m.


``We could have a city with no one in it, or we can have issues due to activity,'' he said. ``I anticipate problems as we grow.''